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Bridge commission questions bill from railroad customer

[04/12/01] The commission responsible for the upkeep of the U.S. 80 Mississippi River bridge is seeking an explanation of a nearly $1 million bill from the railroad company that is the commission’s largest customer.

The Vicksburg Bridge Commission voted Wednesday to ask a representative of Kansas City Southern Railway to show where the company spent the money on the bridge.

Under the longstanding agreement with the railroad company and its predecessors, KCS maintains the tracks on the 70-year-old bridge and bills the commission for the work done.

But the $962,226 bill received in November has commission members scratching their heads.

“I don’t think we should pay that until it is proven that we owe it,” said commission chairman Winky Freeman.

Freeman, who is the director of risk management for Canadian National Railroad, said he had gone over the perplexing bill, but can identify only $612,185 of work that had been approved by the commission. Under the agreement with the railroad, the commission must approve all work before it is done.

“I can’t find anywhere that we approved the other $300,000,” he said.

The bill would be paid out of commission funds of about $4.8 million. The source of most of that money is KCS, which pays a per-car toll for use of the bridge operated as a business by Warren County.

Freeman said he asked the commission’s engineering firm, Baton Rouge based HNTB, to review the bill, but that HNTB could not explain the costs either.

The agreement also stipulates the railroad send monthly invoices to the commission, according to Bobby Bailess, attorney for the commission. The bill includes charges dating to 1993.

“We need to clear up several things,” said commission member Max Reed. “They owe us and we owe them.”

KCS holds a 999-year lease for use of the tracks and pays a per-car toll for use of the bridge. Those fees are used for repair and maintenance of the bridge.

Repairs to the bridge, which have been delayed since it was closed in 1998, would be funded by those fees.

HNTB has estimated it would cost $4 million to repair the pier and a railroad support that have been sinking since the bridge was built. The cost to repair the roadway has been estimated at $2.8 million over five years.